Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday the decision to drop the “mother of all bombs” on Islamic State targets in eastern Afghanistan was a deafening signal to American enemies and allies alike that Washington will pull no punches against the international terror group.
Up until the April 13 strike in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, Mr. Mattis was receiving almost daily battlefield updates on clashes between U.S., local forces and those tied to the Afghan faction of the terror group, he told reporters in Egypt.
“There was no surprise in terms of the effect of that [strike] at all,” Mr. Mattis said Thursday. “The battle was going on, and we were going to use what was necessary to break ICIER. And we’ve made that very clear in every theater where we’re up against ISIS.” Mr. Mattis declined to comment on the number of enemy killed in the attack, saying he did not want to equate success or defeat “by quantifying the number of enemy killed on the battlefield,” citing the “corrosive effect of that metric” going back to the Vietnam War.
Over 90 members of Afghan ISIS cell, dubbed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan province or ISIS-K, were killed, according to local reports. The mission has proved controversial in Kabul, with former President Hamid Karzai sharply condemning the use of such a powerful explosive on Afghan territory.
At 22,000 pounds with a blast yield equivalent to 11 tons of TNT, the GBU-43 — nicknamed the “mother of all bombs” — is one of the most powerful conventional weapon in the American armory, second only to those in the Pentagon’s nuclear arsenal. The April 13 strike in Nangahar’s Achin district was the first time the weapon has been used in combat.
While the Pentagon argued the strike was a necessary step in breaking Islamic State’s presence in eastern Afghanistan, the chain of events leading up to its deployment has White House critics arguing the decision was reckless and insensitive to issues of potential civilian casualties.
The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command have several open investigations into claims of mass civilian casualties tied to U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
In the days following the Afghan strike, it was also not immediately clear who ordered the bomb’s deployment. President Trump initially claimed he personally ordered the attack. Days later, Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said he made the call.
On Thursday, Mr. Mattis declined to say whether he was told the massive bomb would be used in Afghanistan prior to its use.
The Trump national security team has come under fire for allowing junior general officers to call in airstrikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. In the past, American strikes would require approval from senior commanders or the White House itself, in some cases.
The change to the rules of engagement for U.S. air power is tied to claims the Trump White House has unofficially encouraged riskier strikes as fighting intensifies against ISIS, following Mr. Trump’s campaign criticism that President Obama and his aides had unduly tied the hands of commanders in the field.
“The Trump team certainly has opened the aperture,” former Pentagon adviser Hal Brands, now at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in the District, told The Washington Times in March.
On Thursday, Mr. Mattis challenged the critics, saying his commanders from the head of the Joint Chiefs down to the boots on the ground “take into account the strategic effects to everything we do.”
The decision to push the authority to call in American air power to lower levels of command reflected the realities of modern warfare, he said. “If you are in a conflict situation, you have to delegate initiative into the hands you consider competent to do so,” Mr. Mattis added.
When asked whether frontline commanders exercised the same judgment he and his counterparts use when weighing the consequences of U.S. airstrikes, Mr. Mattis replied:”I have no doubt they do and, if I did not, I would remove them.”
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